Friday, March 09, 2007

Traditions and Orange Yams

The sub-district where we are now training has a strong attachment to traditional medicine. So strong, in fact, that I have been seriously considering the need for a module on traditional medicine. Outside the health center there is a large, well-tended herb garden, something I would have overlooked or called a flower garden except that one of my trainers, who is aware of all the ways plants are used, pointed it out to me.

I have asked the trainers to note down some of the stories we are hearing, some of which are peculiar to this place. One entity, on which there seems consensus, is something called Horn Disease.

“It is as real as cough or diarrhea or fever”, said one trainee, “And sometimes it looks like all three.”

It is a result, we are told, of someone bewitching your child and can only be healed by a traditional healer. After the healing has been done, the parent is instructed to take the child to the health center if the symptoms require further treatment.

The people in this area are mainly Bahima, a cultural group of traditional cattle herders, who for reasons that aren't imediately obvious, have no cattle and are attempting to establish themselves as agricultural workers. At this time it doesn’t appear to be much of a success. The matooke (cooking banana) plantations, which are the beloved staple food in the area are not in good shape. People from the central part of the district note that the matooke stems here are short, stunted and the bunches are few and small. And if that weren't enough, this district is also experiencing a menacing banana wilt which has severely decreased crops and continues to do so. There isn’t much need here for the long forked poles which support overweight bunches in other more fertile regions.

I don’t mean to suggest that I can spot this difference in crops myself. Not by a long shot. There are exclamations in the car about how poor the plantations look. Finally I have to inquire, “How can you tell?”

At first they just reply, “Just look at it!”

“What do I look at?” I have to ask since it all looks like matooke to me.

Poor crops, poverty, persistence of traditional beliefs and poor adaptation to a completely different way of life seem to be related.

This weekend in Kampala I was meeting with an old friend who is working on a project to introduce an orange yam with high beta carotene into the diet in Uganda and Mozambique. The project includes establishing agricultural support, seeds, establishing markets, introducing people to this new tuber and trying to create a taste for it. Children appear to love the taste and consistency of the orange yam but the vine needs to be watered and tended somewhat more than the white and grey yams grown here. Unfortunately, for us in the south west, the areas of project implementation are in the more northerly areas of the country.

We shake our heads over the difficulty of changing people’s traditional diet. I retell the story about hosting a huge party with a groaning table full of rice, potatoes, millet, chicken, roasted beef kabobs, samosas, green salad and a fruit salad of pineapple, passion fruit, bananas and payaya. Afterwards a close friend came to thank me saying, it was a wonderful party except there was no food.

“No food!” I exclaimed, “Where were you? There was so much food, my table almost collapsed!”

“Oh, yes,” she stated, “There was lots to eat but there was no food.”

Seeing my surprised face she added, “No matooke.”

We both laughed. The attachment of the Baganda tribe in central Uganda to matooke is legendary and has even spread to other areas. Here among the Ankole, matooke has also become a staple both for local consumption and a cash crop with huge truckloads marketed in Kampala.

“Good luck with the orange yam!” I tell my friend as we hug on parting.

Trying to introduce orange yams seem a mad undertaking at first glance, but I have noticed that cucumbers, carrots, okra, cilantro and green peppers that were not grown here before are starting to appear in Mbarara markets. We could really use the beta carotene these orange yams contain especially for children. It would make a whole lot more sense than giving children Vit A capsules every six months as is now done. So I am already thinking about how it might become an income generating project. Maybe if it was started near a swamp or another source of water? One needs to take note of traditional practices but one also needs to move forward.

photos: Orange yam (AKA sweet potato); matooke market; local yams; matooke bunch



Blogger Body Soul Spirit said...

Very interesting. I remember my mother telling me of a visit she made to a remote Mexican village. The people ate beans and tortillas with a little meat all the time. Mom got tired of the menu and asked if they would prepare her a squash that was growing in the garden. They were shocked that she would ask for a vegetable that was only fed to the pigs. Sounds like traditions can run deep in Africa too.

5:06 PM  
Blogger Borneo Breezes said...

Body Soul Spirit- It's true about traditions. People here are offended that corn in North America is pig food and can hardly believe we love sweet corn.

11:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

that definitely looks like a sweet potato to me! I think it's only North Americans who have been fooled to think these are yams. But it's true -any way you call it or cut it - they have betacarotene. Now if we can
only figure out how to get those parents to grow it so their kids can
eat it ....Anna-Marie

11:38 AM  
Blogger Susan said...

Hmmm...has your friend tried making up a recipe of matook and orange yam mashed together and then fried like a fritter? Or they could always do what the King of France did to introduce the new world treasure the potato to his suspicious farmers: After all attempts to GIVE the farmers free seed crops failed, the clever king decreed the new crop a novelty ONLY for his court, and put a guard all around his potato fields. The citizens, eager to raise and sell this new "delicacy" slipped in and stole plants until there were potatoes planted in fields all over the countryside!
I work in Public/Community health in the inner city, and we call that "top-down innovation"- introducing a new idea to those in the community with status first, and then letting the natural tendency to follow such style leaders take it's course.
It is funny how society perceptions about a food can make such valuable nourishment go unappreciated in all cultures. The tomato was considered "poisonous" in Victorian England- so much so that when a man took one and bit into it on the steps of a public building, women fainted and the constabulary was called!

8:05 PM  

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